Chongqing and Bo Xilai: how China works

The downfall of party boss Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai is more than a tale of scandalous intrigue. Their fate reveals the prison of suspicion and mistrust that envelops China’s system of power, says Kerry Brown.

Kerry Brown
16 August 2012

At night, approached from a certain direction, the city of Chongqing in China’s southwest looks a little like Hong Kong. Its city centre lies on a promontory, with its skyscrapers, blazing with light, rising impressively over the surrounding water. By day, any such illusions tend to be shattered. In the mid-2000s, soon after Chongqing was granted special status as a municipality directly under the central government - and thus separated from the vast Sichuan province, of which it had been part - the city became known as one of China’s most polluted places. One informal estimate said it enjoyed only seventeen days' sunlight a year. The rest of the time it was under an enveloping man-made toxic fog.

Around the same time, 2004, the city acquired the title of the world’s largest conurbation, with a population in excess of 30 million. The more sceptical observers worked out that this had to be spurious. Chongqing covered an area the size of most British counties, or the smaller of American states. Even to describe it as a city would be a stretch. The urban area of Chongqing that most outsiders encountered was gave a misleading impression: most of the rest of the “city” looked like contemporary rural areas elsewhere in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

I visited Chongqing in 2007, a few months before Bo Xilai was sent there as party secretary following a surprise decision at the seventeenth congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing. Like many others, I was enthused and intrigued by reports that the city - renowned throughout the world as “Chunking” - was making efforts to rebrand itself and attract international visitors. I met with members of the local-government’s information office, who showed me flashy presentations about how Chongqing would project itself as “a place where everyone can come” (in Chinese, the strapline was ren ren lai Chongqing).

The equivalent of the city’s tourist bureau had created pleasant little lapel-badges showing two figures walking, a symbol of how the world was about to beat a track to Chongqing’s door. Direct flights from Europe and elsewhere in Asia to the newly built airport at the suburb of Jiangbei offered a fresh target-market and entry-point. Chongqing was about to have a second lease of life. It would, one of the officials declared to me, become “the Hong Kong of the mainland”; indeed, one of the slick, professional adverts showed a visitor flying in for a weekend and experiencing a moment of revelation: this city was everything Hong Kong had wanted, and failed, to be!

The grim theatre

Chongqing now, in 2012, presents a more complicated face to the world. The high-profile Bo Xilai did indeed make waves, following the pattern of his term of office in Dalian in China’s northeast:  waging noisy campaigns, attracting attention, telling the world this was the place to come - if only for an audience with the great rising star. But Chongqing’s underside was never far away and could not easily be hidden. It was a city riddled with illegal activity, where mafia traded in contraband goods and ran large swathes of the local economy, almost heedless of the writ of the party.

Bo had the political guts to deal with this, but the outcomes weren’t pretty. He fought the mafia by subverting due process. A lawyer, for example, was badly beaten up and then detained without explanation when trying to represent some of those accused of mafia activity; a large number of businesspeople was rounded up and given a form of summary justice without a clear sense of what they were being accused of. A climate of fear grew, and was strong enough to reach the foreign press. Bo countered the whiff of violence that attached to him with can-do showmanship: here, was the message, is a man at last trying to clean up the city, deal with illegal bandits, and in the process address social problems of inequality and sustainable housing. Even if it was all a bit rough and ready, Bo - went the narrative - wasn’t just drifting with the wind but trying to achieve something.

Perhaps he was. But when in February 2012 his chief deputy of security, a man reportedly at the heart of the brutal treatment of some of the local mafia, made a spectacular attempt to claim asylum in the United States consulate in nearby Chengdu, things began to unravel. Chongqing, the aspirant to status of new Hong Kong - a centre of trade, tourism, international travel and investment - was reverted as a furnace of overheated conspiracy, deadly conflict, and bitter court intrigues. Bo’s wife Gu Kailai was directly implicated in the death in November 2011 of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, and the great man himself was summarily suspended first from his Chongqing post, then from his position on the politburo, his prospects of advancement to the very top leadership in China’s forthcoming transition (or any subsequent one) almost certainly terminated.

For many, the grim theatre around Bo and his wife’s fall only underlines that the more things change in China, the more they stay the same. In the end, this is a system predicated on unaccountable power, where at the heart of governance a few all-important individuals engage in coalition-building and mutual support to advance each other’s interests without input from public opinion. A crucial factor in this respect was that Bo lacked anyone in the standing committee of the politburo who was willing to take a risk and support him. That, more even perhaps than the misdemeanours of his wife and family, sealed his fate.

The real tragedy

Chongqing today seems a more uneasy, even sinister, place than before the waves of scandal broke.  Those who suffered during the anti-mafia crackdown are recounting their stories of abuse during that period. It is a time of recrimination. Suddenly it is acceptable to say the previously unsayable - that Bo Xilai, the party secretary, was out of control and practising his own form of illegality. It’s probably more accurate to say that one form of confusion has been replaced by another. For Bo’s treatment is about as political as it can get in the contemporary PRC. Anything touched by him has implications for the current leaders and their self-interest, in conditions where truth is but a variable. The inner circle’s key concern is to prevent any contagion from Bo’s case touching them.

What really happened in the room of the bitterly misnamed Lucky Holiday Inn where Neil Heywood died in November, who did what, and what the link with Bo Xilai was - all this might never be known. Beyond the private tragedy, however, the saddest thing about this case is that even if the full truth were told, it is very unlikely it would be believed. In that sense, China’s communist leadership have created for themselves and for the Chinese people a prison far harder to escape from than the one in which Chongqing’s mafia were held.

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